When French President François Hollande visited Washington two months ago, he declared “trust is restored,” regarding the vast NSA surveillance programs in Europe. In her upcoming visit in May, Angela Merkel will find it far more difficult to convince a skeptical German public that trust is restored, especially when Putin is testing her and Barack Obama’s resolve to uphold a Europe whole and free. Merkel’s time in Washington must revive the German-American relationship by striking a bargain that mends fences as well as builds bulwarks against a revisionist Russia.
On surveillance issues, Merkel’s visit will be successful if a new modus vivendi can be announced by the United States. Simply stated, the United States must acknowledge it no longer will allow a tool of statecraft—the vast surveillance program the NSA developed after 9/11—to undermine a vital goal of statecraft, namely alliance solidarity in combating terrorism. NSA programs should be tailored in a way that protects the privacy not only of normal American citizens, but also of America’s allies. The Obama administration is moving in the right direction by ending bulk collection of American citizens’ data and this should be extended to cover those of key allies.
Both Germany and the United States have an interest in preserving the internet’s governance that benefits companies and customers worldwide. American reluctance to rein in NSA programs is fueling European pressures for cyber walls, threatening a balkanization of the internet. At the very moment when progress on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is needed to boost growth and jobs on both sides of the Atlantic, the EU Parliament is threatening to attach conditions regarding internet privacy to those negotiations. These pressures must be resisted and reduced by settling the NSA affair.
The other side of the transatlantic bargain must be Chancellor Merkel’s unreserved affirmation of the NATO alliance and its Article 5 defense commitment in reassuring Germany’s neighbors regarding a resurgent Russia. This requires German statements as well as actions to invest in hard security as opposed to relying exclusively on its soft economic power and diplomacy. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is fond of pushing diplomacy, but without the backing of NATO’s military resolve, such efforts are not likely to be convincing or successful in dealing with a hard power calculator like Vladimir Putin. This is not to suggest NATO would fight for Ukraine, but it would be prepared to put boots on the ground in neighboring NATO states for reassurance and deterrence. Germany should be in the forefront of such efforts, not hanging back as it has in recent NATO-led activities. Further economic sanctions, backed by Germany, should also be part of the package discussed in Washington and announced if Russian meddling in Ukraine worsens.
Germany and Europe also have to realize that the new design of Russian foreign policy has defined the European Union as an opponent of Moscow. The EU’s Eastern Partnership has placed it on a collision course with the new Russian geopolitical-cultural policies. Harking back the Huntington thesis of clashing civilizations, the Russian Cultural Ministry’s recent policy document asserts that Russia is not Europe and that Russia is a distinctive civilization that must protect itself against failings of Europe’s non-Slavic culture.
The sense of being culturally threatened is not a new phenomenon in Russia’s perception of the West. However, it has taken on a more geopolitical character by exaggerating the sense of betrayal when the Baltic States as well as former Members of the Warsaw Pact pushed for NATO membership. NATO enlargement was never an imperial design of the West to encircle Russia, but more of an insurance policy should Russia reassert itself as it is doing in Ukraine. The Russian narrative cannot be tolerated, especially by someone like Angela Merkel who witnessed the social and economic costs of Russian imperial “protection.”
Thus, Chancellor Merkel and President Obama have a chance to strike an important bargain that can restore trust, build resolve and lead Europeans in what might be the most important challenge to NATO and Europe since the end of the Cold War. This opportunity should not be missed, as it will be a sign to the Russians as well as those neighboring Russia that the West cannot be stymied by its own internal divisions or cowed by Russia’s bluster.
Dieter Dettke is adjunct professor at Georgetown University, a former Washington Office Director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and a senior non-resident fellow of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.
Roger George teaches at the National Defense University and is a former National Intelligence Officer for Europe.